Tim Butler M’08 didn’t think that graduate school was for him. After all, it had been 25 years since he had earned his bachelor’s degree, and he had a fine job as Emergency Control Chief for the Saint Paul Fire Department.
But he soon realized that if he was going to advance in the fire department, he was going to need a master’s degree. So with the recommendation of his colleagues, Butler enrolled at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota to pursue a master’s degree in Public Safety Administration in 2006.
In 2007, Butler was appointed Fire Chief of the Saint Paul Fire Department. In January 2009, he spoke at Saint Mary’s Schools of Graduate and Professional Programs’ commencement ceremony with his master’s degree in hand.
“I told people at the graduation ceremony that I felt like the old dog who could learn new tricks,” Butler said. “My academic mind was still there from 20 years ago, and this was like opening up the shutters and getting fresh sunlight. It was like going into a dusty attic. Without that program, I know I would not have gotten the job.”
The last time Butler was in school before studying at Saint Mary’s was at the Coast Guard Academy in the early 1980s, where he studied marine science. After serving in the military, he joined the Saint Paul Fire Department in 1990 as the Fire Communication Chief and was eventually transferred back and forth between the Police and Fire Departments as the Emergency Management Chief.
“My career was going wherever it led me rather than me planning where I wanted it to go,” Butler said. “An opportunity for an assistant chief position came up in the department, but I didn’t have any relevant fire department experience. If I ever wanted to become competitive for these positions, I better get some academic background that’s pertinent to the job. That’s when I decided to talk to Don Winger.”
Winger, program director for the M.A. in Public Safety Administration at the time, knew Butler when he served as police chief of Maplewood, among other positions in local law enforcement. After beginning his studies, Butler was encouraged by Winger to apply for the fire chief job.
“For a number of reasons, I decided to throw my hat in the ring,” Butler said. “I came out as the No. 1 candidate, and I got hired as the fire chief when I was about halfway through the Saint Mary’s program.”
What Butler learned during his studies at Saint Mary’s helped him through the early days of running the fire department, and he continues to utilize those ideas today.
“The new ideas and new thoughts there really shaped my concept of what the fire chief job was all about and how I wanted to shape my department,” Butler said. “I was able to look at Saint Paul Fire from the outside and say, ‘this is what I want to keep and this is what I want to change.’ That remains my strategy. Saint Mary’s is a great place to learn and encourage ideas.”
Butler’s day-to-day duties place him in charge of the operations and administration of the 475-person fire department. Being the first fire chief in department history who was not previously a career firefighter, Butler went through the fire academy at age 51 to become a licensed firefighter and EMT.
“Everyone has to have the core competencies,” Butler said. “Including me. I go to training sessions alongside my guys, and I go to fire scenes. I do a 24-hour shift with a fire company every once in a while. I manage personnel, budgets and where we are going as a department.”
Now in his second term as fire chief, Butler spends a good amount of his time teaching — sometimes with the young firefighters in his department and sometimes as an adjunct at Saint Mary’s for the same program from which he graduated.
“I tell them to do it for the eight-year-old in the crowd,” Butler said. “They will think they can be strong and brave like you. Even if you aren’t a firefighter, you can still show that bravery. The public will be encouraged to be courageous and stand up for right. America needs the values that we stand for, and that goes back to Saint Mary’s Lasallian principles, too.”